Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Weekend in Oxford

I've been home now for two weeks, and what with one thing and another have not had the opportunity to finish blogging on my trip. So here goes.

The day before I left from Toulouse, Tony and I spent the day there. Besides being a charming town, there are two major churches there. The earlier is the Cathedral, dedicated to St. Sernin, a magnificent Romanesque building built between 1080 and 1120. The later is the Dominican basilica of the Jacobins, Gothic, 13th and 14th century, where the bones of Thomas Aquinas are now honored under the modern altar. Toulouse was the historic center of the Dominican Order for centuries. The Jacobins is unique, as far as I know, among major basilicas, in that massive pillars march down the center, making any unobstructed view of a high altar (which it lacks) impossible.

I spent the final weekend of my vacation in Oxford with a friend and Associate of the Order, Bob Jeffery. Bob has had a distinguished career in the Church of England, beginning as a curate in the North of England, then working in the C of E central offices in Westminster, then secretary of the British Council of Churches, Dean of Worcester and Sub-Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. There were other jobs along the way, including Vicar of Headington, near Oxford. Bob also writes C of E obituaries for the Times of London.

He also knows just about everyone. So in September when he mentioned his good friend Henry Mayr-Harting, I could not contain myself, and somehow a dinner party was contrived with the M-H's. What a joy it was! Mayr-Harting is one of the greatest living scholars of ecclesiastical history, and held the Regius Professorship, being the first Roman Catholic to do so. Along with the professorship come duties as a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, so Bob had the happy task of teaching this ecclesiastical scholar how to be an Anglican cathedral canon, which the Professor vastly enjoyed. He and his wife Caroline are utterly charming.

My good friend Robbin Clark has landed in Gloucester as the Dean of Women Clergy for that diocese, after retiring from a very successful tenure as Rector of St. Mark's, Berkeley. Robbin had been an exchange student from CDSP to Cuddesdon College, a seminary near Oxford, back in the 70's, and I think it is fair to say that it changed her life. She cultivated her relationships in the C of E for many years, and at a reunion a few years ago at Cuddesdon, where she was honored as their first woman seminarian, she let it be known she would be open to an interesting ministerial challenge upon retirement, and lo and behold! Robbin came over Saturday for lunch and met Bob, and then she drove me out to Cuddesdon, which I had never seen. Such a beautiful place! And the seminary is apparently doing well on all fronts. Deo gratias.

On Sunday, Dec. 11, I went with Bob to St. Peter's, Wolvercote, a short distance outside Oxford, where he presided and preached. The place was full, a wide range of ages, full bench of acolytes, and the six bells were pealed by an expert team for half an hour or so before the service. Of course, the Anglican world being approximately two inches wide, there was someone there I knew: Joanna Coney, who is now the head of Franciscan Tertiaries in Europe, and who had been at West Park in September for the international Anglican Franciscan leadership conference. A joyous reunion. And a joyous morning!

In the afternoon we went to the Ashmolean Museum, completely reworked, with a beautiful atrium and staircase. I am afraid, however, that the museum has chosen the route of educational and informative display, so that there are relatively few objects on view and a plethora of large, explanatory posters to tell you all about them. I would rather see more objects, but I suppose even Oxford needs to cater to the uninformed. My old friend the Alfred Jewel was there, however, so I was consoled.

We had tea and Vespers at the All Saints convent. They are few -- nine, I think, with seven in attendance at Vespers -- but very warm and welcoming. I cannot think of a nicer way to end the weekend and my vacation.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Avignon, Nîmes and Preaching in Limoux

I am now in the final week of my stay in Alet-les-Bains with my good friend Tony Jewiss. We had a wonderful short trip last week to Avignon and to Nîmes. There are three outstanding reasons to visit these places, apart from their own civic virtues: the Papal Palace in Avignon and the Arena and the Maison Carrée in Nîmes.

It is hard, I suppose, for any medievalist to visit the Papal Palace in Avignon and not have a world of reactions. The French papacy of the 14th Century and then the papal schism (1378-1417) were a huge part of the religious background to the age of Chaucer, Piers Plowman, and early English mystical writings like The Cloud of Unknowing, to say nothing of the vast Christian culture beyond England. So as Tony and I wandered around the vast palace, I had a wonderful meditation on the place of renewed Church administration in Christian culture (the Avignon popes modernized, in their own terms, the administration of the Church) and on the role of Church patronage of the arts.

The Arena and the Maison Carrée in Nîmes are among the best preserved ancient Roman buildings anywhere, both being the most perfect examples of their type that exist in Europe. The Arena is a medium-sized amphitheater for gladiatorial shows and other blood sports. It was used for other purposes through the centuries and its restoration first undertaken by Napoleon. It is still used for concerts, operas, and even for skating in the wintertime. The Maison Carrée is a temple built to honor the two sons of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, whom the Emperor Augustus, Agrippa's best friend, had adopted as his own. Exquisite!

Tony invited me to preach twice while I was in Limoux. The first was on Christ the King two weeks ago, and I preached extemporaneously. The second was yesterday, Advent II. I wrote it out early in the week so that it could be sent to the lay readers of the Church of England Chaplaincy in this area -- there are not enough priests to cover all the congregations, and it was Tony's turn to provide the sermon. I found it strange preaching a text that I had written some days ago, and to realize that several others might be preaching it as well. To facilitate others' reading, it was devoid of personal reference, which my sermons generally include. My usual practice is to write sermons the day before I preach them, so they are fresh in my mind in the morning. On Sunday I found myself reconsidering and reframing the material in my mind and then, in delivery, modifying and embellishing and providing background as I went on, which made it longer than I had intended. So here is the original text:

Isaiah 40: 1-11
2 Peter 3: 8-15a
Mark 1: 1-8

“Comfort ye”, in the words of the Authorized Version used by Handel in Messiah: “Comfort ye.” Israel in exile in Babylon has just learned that they are to return to Jerusalem. What they thought impossible is about to happen: the cruel exile, in which they had been ripped from Jerusalem, from Zion, from the City of David and the City of the Temple of the Most High God, is about to end. The magnificent poetry of the prophet of the end of the exile, whom we call Second Isaiah, begins with these words, and unfolds not only the joy of an Israel renewed, but one of the most profound meditations on the nature of God and reality in human thought, and not just in abstract thought: The one who comes with might, whose arm rules for him, is also the one who feeds his flock like a shepherd, who carries the lambs in his bosom and gently leads the mother sheep. What joy to contemplate the hope of return, God’s peace accomplished in the love of the Almighty for his flock.

This return of God’s people from their exile is how Mark begins his Gospel, the image he uses as the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ: Prepare the Way of the Lord. John the Baptist is calling Israel out into the wilderness so she can discover what she really is: a people in trouble, a people who need to turn around, which is what repenting is. Leaving behind their sins in the desert and being washed in the Jordan links them not only to the people returning from the Exile, but to the people escaping Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, receiving a new identity, a new life and a new direction at Sinai and at last entering into the Promised Land. John wants a new beginning. He doesn’t know what that beginning will be or who will lead it, or where it will go. His job is to get the people ready, get them to the River. He is the new Moses, waiting for the new Joshua.

When we confront scripture, especially texts as beautiful, multi-layered and moving as the beginnings of Second Isaiah and Mark, there are always several things going on in us at once. One is just to understand the text itself, where it came from, who it was written for and why, and what it meant at the time. Our Bible studies and private reading and continuing studies help us with that. What we learn about the language and history and customs of these times is preparing us for the second step, which is to imagine ourselves back into those days and into the lives of people and what happened to them. What joy must have gripped the Israelites in Babylon, even as they contemplated the hard journey ahead, trusting that steep mountains and deep valleys would be made passable on their journey back to Palestine. And what fearful anticipation must have gripped Israel as the Baptist announced that Something was about to happen, and that there was a way they could be made ready for it. People must have pondered all those things they had done and left undone, and rejoiced that there was a way to deal with them.

But when we have done our work of study, and when we have allowed our study to instruct our imagination, something else also remains. The Scriptures are the Word of God at least in part because they speak to us, to us as we are now. The Scriptures demand our best efforts to understand them as they are as texts and as they were as events, but all that is preparation for the life they give us.

The writer of Second Peter seems to have pondered this double sense of time, time then and time now, the conflation of the ancient time of God’s actions with his people in the past and the urgency of our time in the present. “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years.” The past and the present are one in God’s time. The Lord is not slow, but patient. Nevertheless, the day of the Lord will arrive like a thief in the night. So the time of the past and the time of the future come together in the present, in our lives now. The Babylonian Captivity, the Jerusalem of the unspeakable Herods, the Israel of then, is also ours today.

Who among us has not been in exile, been shut out, been carried away from our true home, whether in physical fact or in the sometimes greater reality of our inner lives, and longed for return? Who among us has not known deep in our hearts that our lives have gone wrong, and longed for the call to the wilderness, where they can be cleansed and made ready for something new? The truth is that the human condition is often to live in an alien land, sometimes objective and real outside ourselves, sometimes deeply interior. The truth is that it is our nature to go astray, at best to wander off into paths that take us nowhere good, or at worst, to take the roads that lead us into deep trouble. There is yearning deep in our hearts for the home we have left. There is a deep need in each of us to find what we have done wrong and right it, so that we can begin to be who we should be. These are Advent yearnings, Advent needs: We want the one to come who will save us, rescue us, and bring us home.

St. Augustine of Hippo was one of the great psychologists and doctors of the human heart. He confronted this longing in his own life and did something about it: he turned from the way of self to the way of God. And along the way he came to a profound understanding of himself, an understanding that can unfold some of the yearning, the desire for change and the conflation of time that these great texts give us. He locates it in our very natures, in the image of God written in our hearts at the moment we came to be, which is so powerful that it animates all our desires: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Our hearts are restless. We feel we are somehow in the wrong place, even when we are happy. We know our lives need change. And somehow we know that nothing in this world will completely satisfy those needs. It is not where we go or what we do or what we get or what we have that give us the peace and joy we crave. It is the love of God that gives us the hope we need, the hope that He will take us in his arms and tenderly lead us home, that when we meet him in the wilderness we will be made ready for his coming among us.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Remembrance Day

I am happily into my vacation in Languedoc-Roussillon, having arrived a little fatigued on Friday (American frm JFK to Madrid, long wait at Madrid/Barajas, and then a little less than an hour to Toulouse). My friend Tony Jewiss, with whom I am staying, is the priest for the Anglican congregation in these parts, a delightful group of expatriate British who meet in the old Augustinian convent church in Limoux. I will preach there this coming Sunday. Sunday the 13th was Remembrance Day, which is sort of like Veterans' Day but with a lot more to it. C of E Churches generally make a thing of it, and it's a reminder of how much more closely the C of E represents the official English culture than the Episcopal Church does the American. Morning Prayer with sermon. A turnout of about 35 or so. A good coffee hour (with actual coffee) afterward, and then more than a few repaired to the Limoux town square for an aperatif.

I thought Tony's sermon was quite good, and asked him if I might share it on this blog. So here goes:

Zephaniah 1:7,12-end
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30
Psalm 90:1-8

A friend of mine is the organist at West Point Military Academy, not far from the Monastery at West Park where Fr. McCoy lives. The chapel at West Point, coincidentally, has the largest organ in a public worship space in the country.

Meredith plays every Sunday and for many events throughout the year. There, as in most places boasting elite branches of the services, graduation is a spectacular event. Massed marching, bands and plenty of pageantry – not quite as much as you are used to perhaps, but a good attempt to imitate England’s undisputed superiority when it comes to marching about, accompanied by bands, anyway.

Even organ music, as the chapel is used for ceremonial events as well.

Meredith knows hundreds and hundreds of cadets and officers by name. She sees them arrive, all gangly and awkward, from hometown wherever it may be, and sees them whipped into shape, taught to walk ramrod straight, turned out to be officers, then sent off to war.

Not war really. Actually, there are no wars at the moment. War requires formal declaration and that in turn establishes some rules. The many conflicts around the world right now fall into other categories – in the case of the ones we hear about most, Iraq and Afghanistan, these are technically Interventions. There are no rules for Interventions. The War on Terror is just a loose use of words, made all the looser by the absence of a War on Illiteracy, a War on Poverty or a War against human trafficking.

Meredith’s duties at the Military Chapel have another dimension, and it is to play the funerals of some of her cadets who come home in a box. There are usually several every week, and occasionally, several in one day. She says it is rare for her not to be able to recall the name of the young man or woman now being eulogized as a hero,
and then put to rest.

In the western world, these events are solemn and restrained. Grief is controlled, losses borne stoically, and usually with great dignity.

A small town in the UK welcomes each cortege that passes through, bearing the bodies of fallen servicemen and women from their arrival at the nearby air base. It is their ministry, their expression of solidarity and sympathy. It is quiet and very moving.

The last few years have given us very graphic images of how different things are in the Middle East. The loss of an Arab boy or girl results in noisy crowd scenes, women throwing themselves over the open coffin being borne, lurching precariously through the streets. Young men fire rifles into the air, and it is chaos.

Yet mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and children everywhere are equally devastated at their losses. All ask the same question, and it is the very question we must also keep before us as we are gathered here to do honor to, and pay respect to, those who have died in the service of their country.

I do not like the expression – “gave their lives for their country.” That to me implies some kind of intention to go and not return. Armed conflicts have always relied upon that sense of invulnerability that the young enjoy, to send them with a certain eagerness to play a role in the Army or the Navy or the Air Force. I think, and hope, that all of them have every intention of coming home fit and well, appreciated by their country and with a sense of having furthered the cause of peace. But even among the survivors, it is not always that way.

In my last job in New York I was asked to be on the selection committee to choose a national chaplain to oversee the activities of the Church’s corps of service chaplains – several hundred of them stationed all over the world. The candidates were narrowed down to three, and it was a hard choice as they were all very well qualified. Each candidate told us things we did not know. Things that change and expand the ministry of chaplaincy in terms of scope and in terms of longevity. They all spoke of the very substantial percentage of service men and women who came home with devastating injuries. In times past they would have all died, but now modern field medicine saved their lives, but not their limbs.

Thousands of them suffer brain injuries caused by their heads being banged about in those large and instrument-laden helmets – designed as much to provide tactical information and communications, as they are to protect the head.

We don’t think much about this aspect of the lives and work of those who fight for us, even on days such as Remembrance Day, although we should. Nor do we think deeply about who these men and women are. The life in service is not for every one, no, not at all. If it is for the sons and daughters of the rich and famous at all, it is through the portals of officer school and the privileges of rank.

As far as the rank and file in concerned, the Service life is an option when jobs are scarce and one’s social rank prevents a life in banking or commerce or politics.

Here are a few statistics that I think you will find shocking – a recent study shows that almost 60% of veterans suffered physical abuse as children, and almost 40% suffered sexual abuse. In one country, in 2010, the Army reported more deaths by suicide than deaths in the field.

Over 50% suffer some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and almost all have heightened awareness, and reaction to, excessive light and sound.

Much has been written in recent years about how congregations can help returning service people find peace and reconciliation after their field experiences. I don’t believe we have that opportunity but hundreds of congregations do, and are treating this ministry as vital, learning how to avoid clichés and platitudes and how to gently ease these men and women, injured as much psychologically as physically, back into the mainstream of community life.

Military families need support as well. It is hard to even imagine the pressures placed on a family unit as the returning veteran deals with spouse and children who cannot really conceive of the things he or she has so intimately experienced.

The words from Zephaniah may not resonate easily with us. At first one wonders what has possessed the compilers of the lectionary to choose such a reading for today. But I might speculate that they would resonate clearly with someone whose memories are shot with the terrible possibilities of which Zephaniah speaks.

The uncertainty, the apprehension, the sudden percussion, the falling rubble, the dust, the debris, the shattering noise, the blinding incendiary. Thank God most of us will never know it – but every veteran does.

The words of Paul to the Thessalonians may not resonate immediately with us either, but they are actually words of encouragement.

Certainly Paul employs some military imagery but he is really saying that there is an alternative to conflict. This reading is a kind of mirror image to Zephaniah. It shows that there is another way, another ideal, another possibility. We need to hold these peaceable possibilities in mind even as we remember those who carried those ideals into the field of conflict itself.

Last week the Prime Minister entertained the organization that offers support to veterans, at a party at 10 Downing Street. His remarks, aimed as much at the cameras as at those present, were a study in political opportunism. His speech writer had dredged up every cliché possible. Apart from his probably intimate knowledge of the line item in the national budget, it was pretty obvious that he had no real empathy with the work of rehabilitating veterans.

I wish his speechwriter had instead translated the gospel story we’ve listened to this morning into a more meaningful and more sincere message for the cameras. Even when delivered by well groomed and sleek Prime Ministers, the truth can be convincing.

The resources delegated to the servants in the story were in fact immense. The responsibility therefore delegated to them was immense as well. The talent was a huge amount of money, and the risks involved in investing it were huge as well.
Time is a crucial element in the gospel story as well. Jesus is preparing his hearers for the uncertainty of the time element – they were expecting His return to be immediate but he says that is not to be the case. Instead, that information is hidden, and therefore the need for proper preparation and anticipation.

Next, actually possessing the money in the first place is not evidence that the enterprise will succeed. The talents were bestowed because the owner believed his servants already had ability to succeed. The entrusting of the money did not necessarily carry with it the actual ability to succeed.

Then, there is the element of risk, and as we know, one of the servants did not take any risk. He kept his part of the money secure, but he did not use it to achieve anything. He did not do the work that the other two did. His was a passive engagement with the task; theirs was active.

Lastly, the issues of reward and punishment. There are consequences to every decision, every action, every engagement.

The men and women of the armed services are a priceless resource – they are people, they are real, and their value as children of God is immeasurable.

They are given tasks that do not fall into the ideal definition of life. They must take enormous risks, make value judgments and deploy their resources with boldness and with not much time to ponder decisions. There are not many rules as to who succeeds or fails to succeed – but their trajectory has to be forward. They cannot be idle, like the third servant.

All three servants respond to their own view of the Master – two are inspired to please him and to succeed in the goals he has set. The third does not trust the Master and fears his reaction if he should not succeed. It is as if he said to himself “I knew you were unreasonable, and that there was no way to please you, so I decided not even to try”.

This tells us that both conflict and opportunity must be met by people who may or not be qualified. Trained, yes, but temperamentally qualified, not necessarily.

Either way, what we ask of the women and men of the armed forces is not reasonable, yet we expect it of them anyway.

And therein lies the real reason we gather today. Rising to do the work of war is the response to an unreasonable request – and in some cases, demand. Yet veterans did respond, did grasp the higher vision, and did what we have come to call duty
despite the risks.

We remember the ones who could not return. We care for the ones whose injuries prevent their being able to enjoy a full life. And we nurture back to health the ones whose experiences have wounded them in other ways.

And we commend them to God’s loving and healing care, even as we earnestly continue to pray for the peace that they have tried to attain.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Election postponed

After a year of hard work on the part of so many, particularly the committee whose task it was to present nominees to the diocesan convention, that convention has been postponed until November 19 because of a big snowstorm headed our way. What a frustration to everyone concerned! I have planned for a long time to spend a month's vacation with a dear friend in Europe beginning Nov. 10, so it looks like not only will I not be the convention chaplain, I won't even vote!

I arrived in NYC around 4pm to stay at the House of the Redeemer, and had planned to have dinner with Carl Sword, OHC. Looks like dinner and a late train back tonight.

There must be an appropriate scriptural passage for this sort of thing. If it occurs to me, I'll log back in and add it. Something about the best laid plans going a'glay, or however the Scots spell it. They're all good Calvinists steeped in scripture, so even if it isn't in the Book it probably should be.

Adalbert de Vogüé OSB

"The Abbey of Pierre qui Vire announces the painful and enigmatic death of P. Adalbert de Vogüé OSB, 86. His body was found 2 km from the monastery after a search of eight days. He probably died Friday, 14 October 2011. The publication of Community and Abbot in the Rule of Saint Benedict (1960) began a distinguished career of research and publication concerning the Rule of Saint Benedict and early monastic literature. He served frequently on the faculty of the Pontifical Athanæum of Saint Anselm in Rome before taking up the hermit's life in 1974 near his monastery. The monks will celebrate the Mass of Christian Burial, Wednesday, 26 October, 11 a.m. Donne-lui, Seigneur, le repos éternel."

With these words the Abbey of La Pierre qui Vire announced the death of the greatest scholar of monastic texts in the world. Adalbert de Vogüé was born in 1924 in Paris to a wealthy and aristocratic family. His father was son of the Marquis de Vogüé and the princess Louise-Marie d'Arenberg, and was a principal officer in the Crédit Lyonnais. His mother was from an equally distinguished and even more prosperous family. Adalbert joined the Abbey of La Pierre qui Vire in 1944. His parents both decided to follow him into the cloister, and amid great publicity in 1955 his father entered La Pierre qui Vire and his mother entered Abbaye Saint-Louis-du-Temple de Vauhallan at Limon.

In 1960 de Vogüé published his first major book, translated into English as Community and Abbot in the Rule of St. Benedict. His scholarly work concentrated on the Benedictine monastic tradition. His editions and commentaries of the Rule and of Gregory the Great's Dialogues, Book II of which contains virtually all we know about Benedict as a person, are standard. He published hundreds of other books and articles, but his crowning work is the 12 volume Histoire littéraire du mouvement monastique dans l'antiquité, a magisterial survey of every written monastic source in Latin from the beginnings to the Carolingian Benedict of Aniane.

De Vogüé was a complicated man. He received a fine education in Paris and Rome and taught many terms at San Anselmo, the Benedictine college in Rome. He lectured widely and participated in the intellectual and academic life of his patristic and monastic specialties. He also traveled. I had the great honor of meeting him when he was a guest at the Monastery of St. Paul in the Desert in Palm Desert in the 80's. He was also devoted to the most austere forms of monastic life, and spent many years living in semi-seclusion at a hermitage near his monastery. He wrote occasionally on the ascetic life, of which he was a powerful proponent, and not of the school of amelioration for the purposes of making such a life relevant to modern people. His was the full-throated cry of the completely committed, and his passion can best be seen, perhaps, in his little book To Love Fasting.

He was just as full-throated in his interactions with scholars with whom he disagreed. Not a few revisionists of monastic history experienced his sharp disagreements. And with all that, De Vogüé was the greatest scholar in the Benedictine world for fifty years. It is not too much to say that he is in great part responsible for the brilliant flowering of interest in Benedictine monasticism, having laid a solid foundation for the rest of us to build on.

I can't help thinking both how fitting and how ironic his death was -- lost to others in the forests several kilometers from the monastery, his death hidden from the world he both embraced and fled.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Electing a Bishop

On Saturday, Oct. 29, the Diocese of New York will gather in convention to elect a coadjutor bishop. Bishop Sisk has asked me to be the the Chaplain to the Convention. Seven have been nominated, five officially and two by petition. One has withdrawn. The slate was announced at the end of August, and on Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 11, a process of interviewing the candidates began at Christ Church, Poughkeepsie, and continued through the week in six or so other venues.

It was an interesting process. It helped clarify my own thoughts about the candidates to some extent. It is helpful to meet and listen to and observe people in the flesh as well as in their carefully prepared statements and videos and other self-presentations. But more importantly, it helped me to solidify my own thoughts about what the next Bishop of New York might be and do. I share those thoughts here, with the understanding that as I write about them, none of them are criticisms of our current Bishop. No one person can have every gift, and the gifts for which a bishop is elected at one point may not be the same needed a decade or more down the road.

So what do I think is most important in our next bishop?

First, I think that the Bishop should be a clear voice proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That sounds trite, I know, so let me explain. I believe the Church exists to call people to a new reality. The scriptural name for that reality is the Kingdom of God. It goes by other names, even in Scripture: the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew, everlasting life in John, salvation in its many forms in Paul. This is not a simple matter, because it involves scriptural interpretation and sound, contemporary theology as well as participation in the modes of understanding with which our culture describes reality. But that proclamation is at core quite clear: There is a new reality to which the Church calls the world, and that reality has its point of origin and its summation in the person of Jesus Christ. So our new bishop needs to be someone who can proclaim that reality publicly, persuasively, consistently and effectively, not only from the pulpit, but in the many different roles he or she will be called to fill institutionally and in the wider community. The Bishop should be one who makes clear that the Church is impelled by this new reality to begin working for it here and now, and that our many works for the poor, for the education of the young and for social advancement flow from this one source: We believe the Kingdom can begin here and now.

Second, I think that the Bishop needs to love, effectively represent and skillfully promote the kind of Christianity the Episcopal Church stands for. We are catholic and we are reformed. Which is to say, we stand for the full practice of the sacramental, liturgical, theological and ecclesial reality of the historic western Church, and we also stand for the freedom of conscience of each believing person within the fellowship of Christ, and all that follows from that in the full participation of all members in the Church's life, witness and governance. The Bishop needs to be a person who can lead us into the challenges to our form of Christianity in the contemporary moment. These are clear to everyone, but the way forward is not so clear. The Bishop needs to be a skillful institutional leader, one who can envision and implement appropriate new or changed forms of congregational and diocesan ministry. The challenges we face include an aggressively materialist culture which is in many ways opposed to the Christian message, a psycho-social environment which does not value Christian belief commitment very highly, and a financial environment in which there is less money for church structures. The Bishop should be a person who faces our future with optimism because he or she believes in the Anglican way of being Christian, believes that our way is essential for the completeness of the universal Church, and believes that the Anglican way is given by God as one proclamation of the Gospel in our society.

Third, I think that the Bishop needs to be a person who loves holiness: a person of personal prayer and reflection breaking into attitudes of generosity and good discernment toward others, of course, but also a person who wants to promote holiness though the Church. The Episcopal Church has chosen the path of radical inclusiveness, not just in areas of sexuality and gender, but in many other areas as well. How are people transformed by their life in Christ within the Episcopal fellowship? How can the Church build up the Kingdom of God by including people who have been excluded, from the Church altogether in some cases, or from our church in particular in others, as they are drawn into fellowship with those who are already members? The Bishop should be a person who in his or her own personal life is known to be living the life of the Kingdom, but also a person who can call everyone to the challenging work of refashioning their lives, no matter when they entered the vineyard (see Matthew 20:1-16). This is all the more urgent in a time when the traditional educational and economic prospects for young people no longer hold their old promise, when the moral and social conventions of the past, built on socially agreed foundations, no longer hold as firmly as they once did. People need to look to us as a church which calls its members with some success to the struggle to be what God intends us to be, which is not and should not be easy. Thoughtful people find themselves drawn to effective disciplines of holiness. The Church, led by its bishop, should be a place where they can find them.

This is a lot. I am pretty sure no one person has all the qualities needed. But whoever we elect should have these as ideals, as goals, for the episcopal ministry. It is trite to say that the Church is at a turning point. The Church has always been at a turning point, because to be alive in any present moment is to have to choose, to turn toward what is coming. Nevertheless, I believe this is such a moment. I pray that our new Bishop will be a person who can represent the values we carry with us from our tradition and do so with cheerful confidence that the challenges that face us are opportunities, and energize us in the Spirit.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Joy of Old Friends

Practically the only people I know in Austin are Bill and Molly Bennett. We met years ago at CDSP, where Bill was in charge (I think) of development in 1976 when I started studying for my M.Div. there. I remember well doing my work/study thing as a janitor and being told by Bill how important it was to empty the wastepaper baskets. As it surely is. At any rate, we became friends then.

Bill went on in the mid-80's to become the Provost at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, working together with Durstan MacDonald as Dean. It was a good partnership and the seminary flourished under their leadership. Eleven years later or so Bill became the rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Austin, and retired some years ago. Molly worked for years as a Director of Christian Education in Austin Episcopal churches and was responsible for establishing the certification program in Christian Ed at ETS-SW. Both have had distinguished careers.

I had e-mailed in advance, and when I got to Austin I called them up and plans were made. We went for dinner last night at a wonderful place called the Eastside Cafe. The food was delicious. I had mushroom crepes and squash and we all had a scrumptious cherry cobbler for dessert. But of course the nicest part was the conversation. We talked and talked about old friends and the Church, and then they took me on driving tour of downtown Austin. I was a bit taken aback when Bill told me about the Temple of the Holy Spirit which had either six or nine (I'm not sure I remember the number correctly) gatherings a year when more than 100,000 people attend worship. Then I looked up and lo and behold, the U. of Texas stadium. I told Bill I was acquainted with that form of worship, having attended Michigan State in The Good Old Days when Duffy Dougherty was coach.

What a wonderful thing old friends are!

Monday, October 17, 2011

At the Archives

I'm in Austin, TX, until Friday to work on OHC's archival holdings on deposit at the national Episcopal Church archives, which are located on the campus of The Seminary of the Southwest (SSW) (which used to be prefixed with Episcopal Theological, as in ETS-SW). There was no room in the inn there, so I am staying at the Austin Presbyterian Seminary, in very nice digs called the Presidential Condo. It's a one-bedroom condo on the third floor of a married student housing building north of the seminary, very close to SSW and the Archives.

The flight down took me from Stewart-Newburgh to Detroit and Atlanta and then on to Austin. No problems at all. You would never know Detroit is collapsing from its airport, which is quite spiffy, as is Atlanta. The less said about Stewart the better, but the planes leave on time and occasionally arrive on time as well. The TSA people at Newburgh are not at all like the caricatures of those folks. They were pleasant, efficient and friendly. But we still had to take our shoes off.

The Order has had the bulk of our archives in Austin since 1976, and it is a lot of stuff. I'm mostly confirming and improving the descriptions of our holdings and will do a bit of scanning as well.

Austin being in Texas and all, I'm going to go out for a steak tonight. Last night I had a pretty good burger at a little place just down the street, but tonight I'm up for the real thing. People have recommended the Austin Land and Cattle Company (not to be confused, I was urged, with the Texas Land and Cattle Company). Apparently the Austin version has the more authentic down home Austin feel to it, and perhaps more reasonable prices as well.

I visited Austin and the Archives in the mid-80s when I did research there for the history of OHC. The Archives then was run by Nell Bellamy, of very blessed memory, a great woman, a great Christian and something of a saint, at least in my book. Today I had the opportunity for a good conversation with her successor, Mark Duffy, and he is, as they say, Worthy.

Austin is pretty much as I remember it, at least this part of it. I was struck then and continue to be by the casual approach to sidewalks and curbs here. Not at all like southern California, where they approach fetishism. There was some rain a couple of weekends ago, so things are not totally parched, but the drought is still very much on.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

One of life's little signposts

Well, I suppose it had to happen sometime. I'll be turning 65 in December, so I made my appointment to apply for Medicare and had the interview today. I know you can do it online, but somehow I felt I'd rather talk to a human being about this little milestone in the journey. So I got myself up to the Social Security office in Kingston, which is on the second floor of a nice but somehow sterile and forlorn office building out in Lake Katrine, north of the big box shopping district, near nothing at all.

The man who interviewed me was very nice, very helpful. I was glad I had taken along all the documents. The birth certificate in particular. He tried to get me to retire on the spot, but I think I'll wait a while. The full retirement for my age cohort is 66, and the monthly haul increases a bit each month you wait to retire after that.

Coming down the stairs I could have sworn my knees were complaining.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The marriage feast

After more than a month taking services at St. George's, Newburgh, I preached at Holy Cross Monastery this morning. St. George's prefers an informal preaching style, but this morning's offering was written. It is posted on the sermon blog for Holy Cross Monastery and can be reached there.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Conflict Resolution for Labor Day

Preached at The Church of the Incarnation, New York City, September 4, 2011

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Our lessons this morning all in one way or another refer to the resolution of conflict. How interesting that they should occur on the weekend of Labor Day.

The labor movement in this country began as a serious force in the 1880's. Founded in 1869, the first major American labor organization, the Knights of Labor, had only 28,000 members in 1880, and grew to an astonishing membership of 700,000 by 1886, just six years! Something big was going on! The founder of the Order of the Holy Cross, James Huntington, joined the Knights here in New York City and quickly became a national figure supporting the rights of working people, helping to bring their concerns into the heart of the Episcopal Church. The Knights of Labor could not maintain that level and its membership soon fell back, but its rapid growth showed the industrial and political community that organized labor was a force to reckoned with. The Knights of Labor paved the way for an industrial order which eventually came, through struggle, to recognize the rights and dignity of working people. That struggle takes different forms in our own age, perhaps, but it is perpetually necessary, even in times when the creation of work through capital itself seems endangered. And conflict was part of that struggle.

Our three lessons this morning all deal with conflict in one way or another. The prophet Ezekiel is commissioned by the Lord to warn the wicked. But Ezekiel seems not to want to follow through. The Lord has to tell him that if he does not warn them and disaster comes, the blood will be on his hands. So this conflict is dealt with by telling the truth regardless of its consequences to the teller. If people are not warned, they will not change. If they are warned, they may not change anyway, but at least they have had the option presented to them. So, the prophet says, Change while you have the chance.

St. Paul takes another tack. We know what we should and should not do. The Law tells us – adultery, murder, theft, greed are going to cause conflict for sure. Paul wants us to understand how urgent our lives are. We may think there is all the time in the world to resolve things. We may excuse ourselves because keeping the law is complicated. But actually, Paul says, in some of the most inspired words of scripture, Wake up. The time is now. Start living without building up toxic debts to each other. “Love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” If Ezekiel recommends truth telling, Paul recommends living as though the other person is as important, and as worthy of love, as we are.

The passage from St. Matthew’s gospel comes as a surprise in this context. When conflicts arise in the Church, as they always have, and I suspect they always will, one might expect Jesus to tell the believers to turn the other cheek, as he does in another context, the context of an individual choice. But this is a group situation which requires a different approach. So Jesus recommends a conflict resolution process. First talk to the person you have your problem with. If that doesn’t work, bring in another person or two. If that doesn’t work, take it to the congregation. And if that doesn’t work, invite the person to leave. You can almost imagine Jesus writing this out in large letters on big pieces of paper and taping them to the wall during a conference called something like “Conflict Resolution in the Church”. A morning session at a retreat center just outside of Capernaum, by scenic Lake Galilee, perhaps. Jesus the Conference Facilitator. Joking aside, conflict happens, and it clearly happened in the early church. So procedural. So sensible. So sane. So boring.

Except, the ways conflicts were resolved in Jesus’ time were often quite violent. Just look at the 18th chapter of Matthew, from which this passage comes. Earlier in the chapter, it is said, "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.” And after our passage, a story about forgiving debts, which ends: “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart." Jesus was using these images because they are familiar – all too familiar – to his hearers. If this is the way people deal with themselves and with members of their own extended households, how will they deal with outsiders?

And that is the point of this passage, I think. Jesus wants the church to be different, to start something new. Jesus is saying to the church, Even though you come from different families, different towns, different languages and cultures and nations, you are not outsiders to each other. You have a responsibility to listen to each other. You are still bound to come to a just decision, and when you do, the Father will support you, But this must not be done with violence in any case, as is the way of the world.

Jesus is preaching the Kingdom of Heaven here. The world, God’s world, is enveloped in violence, violence which we commit upon ourselves and upon each other, unthinkingly, almost unconsciously, because that is the way of things. And perhaps it can’t be avoided, although I do think that the Middle Eastern love of rhetorical hyperbole should be considered as an interpretive tool for scripture when we are tempted to follow its advice and pluck out eyes or torture each other as means to spiritual progress. But the believing fellowship, the church, is the place which is expressly dedicated to beginning to live in the Kingdom of Heaven, And so here, Jesus calls his followers to another way, a way which is contrary to the way their world operates, to a counter-culture. It is not acceptance of what is wrong. It does not facilitate the offender. But it gives the offender three distinct forums to repent, not unlike Ezekiel’s prophetic call to tell the truth. And if that does not work, the punishment meted out is not eye gouging or hand amputation or torture. It is simple exclusion. If you cannot come to terms with the honest judgment of those who love you as a brother or sister in the Lord, then you don’t belong in the fellowship. Perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven is not for you.

How different from the organized violence of the Roman state. How different from the rhetorical violence of the thought world of Jesus’ hearers, How different from a world in which you have the duty to practice violence on those outside your kinship group at the slightest pretext, and how different from a world in which the enforcement of discipline on those inside the family can call for torture. Jesus wants to transform the conflict of the world, and he wants the church to lead the way.

The history of labor and industrial relations in this country is a history filled with violence. But it is also a history of learning to listen, sitting down one to one, in small groups, and in assemblies if need be. It is a history of learning to hear each other, and of learning that each needs the other.

Ezekiel says that there must be truth tellers. Paul tells us that the time is urgent, and that the way forward is to treat each other with more than wary respect, in fact, to treat each other with love. And our Lord says, If the conflict is real, deal with it. Begin at the lowest level and work up. Come to good and right decisions, and be prepared to enforce them if necessary. But check the violence at the door.

Friday, September 2, 2011


The hurricane came and went. We did as much preparation as we could at the monastery. There were a lot of leaks. The crypt underneath the chapel flooded. It was renovated last year, and the flooding was interesting. The water came up from under the altar, not from the outside drainage area, which had been the problem before, and not from the floor in general. The new heating system was installed in a way that seems to have sealed that part from the source of the water. So once the water was pumped out and the carpet dried and cleaned, little damage was sustained. Our area had a power outage that lasted for a day, but we have a good generator which kept us in electricity.

But that was not the case for our bookkeeper, whose property is by a creek that is tributary to the Wallkill River, and which was badly flooded. At least one car was totaled, and parts of the property so damaged that little could be salvaged. They will be dislocated in various ways for months. And they were lucky. Their power was restored in a day or two, while others in the area are not so fortunate.

Because a lot of the damage was in small towns and out in the country, the news of the effects of the storm is a lot slower coming in than if it had been in more populous areas. It seems that the edges of the storm carried more water than more central parts, so the northern areas, in New York State and Vermont, turn out to be the most heavily hit. A lot of bridges are out. A lot of farms and towns are built in low-lying areas around rivers and streams and were in the way of the water. Schenectady, west of Albany along the Mohawk River, is particularly hard hit. Small towns in the rural areas near us are reported to have basically disappeared. This is not big news in a media sense, but it is significant in our area. There is not a lot of economic activity in New York State once you get away from the New York City commuter areas and the Albany area, where the state government people live and work. The loss of a farm or two, of a small community, can be permanent.

It is increasingly clear to me that the monastery has an important positive economic role in our area. We employ people, purchase a lot of local products, bring people to the area from other places, and work to share what we have with the wider community in various ways, including cooperating with those who help disadvantaged people, of whom there are plenty around here. On a normal week 50 people or more are here doing one thing or another, on retreat or at a meeting or coming to pray with us, in addition to the community, which at this point numbers 15 or so. This is not insignificant, especially in an economic area which, while not precisely depressed, is not flourishing either.

The way we live, the Christian monastic way, is of course not the way for everyone. But we share what we have communally, we practice simplicity (to some extent at least!), and we work cooperatively. These are values useful beyond the monastic context, I think. What we do puts me in mind of the classic Benedictine monasteries of medieval Europe, which were literally centers of their communities, and whose cooperative economics were both stable and dynamic for wide areas around them.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


The Monastery closed on July 24 for our annual retreat. It sounds selfish, but I always look forward to the quiet of a house without guests. I love the guests, mostly, but as I get older, I realize I also love quiet and being alone. Strange for a monk, I know. So this year the community had eight days of silence instead of our customary 10. We are going to try a new retreat formula. In the past few years we have joined our monthly retreats into quarterly retreats, so instead of having one silent day each month, we have three or four a quarter. That won't change, but what will is that we are shortening the annual community all-together retreat slightly and then each monk will have another eight days sometime in the other end of the year. For a guy who likes to be alone and quiet this will be wonderful, I think.

As I have for some years now, I spent a couple of weeks in August after the community retreat staying at the House of the Redeemer in New York City. I like to do this partly to catch up on how things are going at the House, where I have been on the Board of Trustees for eight years or more now. It also reconnects me to the City, which I love.

I always enter into that time full of intentions -- you can see my reading list in the previous post. I usually stock my head full of museums and shows and music and other things NYC offers, and then, like my reading list, something else happens. This time two things happened. The first was friends. A couple who had been guests at the Monastery found me on Facebook and suggested we get together. So we had dinner together at a nice place downtown, where they shared an enormous lobster, and we got to know each other better. And then we thought, what fun it would be to go somewhere in the City together. We thought about the Scholars' Garden on Staten Island, but we had all been there already. A place I had not been, however, was the Bronx Zoo.

So, plans made, they picked me up 10-ish on the appointed morning. Brave souls that they are, they keep a car in NYC (they live in Astoria, Queens, where such things are possible) and we started our drive. The short stretch up the Major Deegan, which looked so convenient on the map, turned into a hour or more of creeping traffic. It was for all of us a spiritual exercise in patience. We finally debouched onto the Cross Bronx Expressway, which going east was practically empty. We reached the Zoo, paid for parking, paid for tickets, and entered. I loved it all. The tigers were spectacular, even with half a hundred yammering kids from a Brooklyn Christian summer school. I won't do a full-scale review of the zoo, except to say that if you go, you should definitely bring money. But best of all was spending time together with friends.

On Saturday the 13th another friend and I had lunch at the southern end of the High Line, just below 14th Street, and then walked to its northern terminus at 30th Street or so. It was a view of New York I had never seen, and is so interestingly designed that what could be just a straight path is in fact a wonderful amalgam of creative landscaping and space that is quite charming. I fully intended to go to church the next day, but that was a day of terrific storm, with sheets of rain pounding down for hours in the morning.

The other thing that happened was that not much happened at all. The rest of my time turned out pretty much as it always does. My always-enjoyable time with the wonderful staff at the House of the Redeemer. Some quality time with Carl Sword, OHC, who lives in NYC. A couple of lunches and dinners with other friends. A couple of movies -- Cowboys and Aliens and the ape movie -- and a show -- The Master Class (terrific). And the rest of the time was spent basically alone.

Which I am gradually realizing is something I did a lot of when I was a monk not in residence and which, ironically I suppose, I miss now that I am back at the Monastery. Unstructured, quiet time, some of it for reading, some of it for praying, but much of it just for being. Walking is a big part of it.

I love being with friends and seeing new and beautiful things. But also -- I love being quiet and I love being alone. Strange, no?

I'll be back in NYC this weekend, presiding and preaching at The Church of the Incarnation, at Madison and 35th, 8:30 and 11:00. The Rector, Doug Ousley, will be away at the wedding of one of his sons.

Monday, August 22, 2011

On this rock I will build my Church

Sunday, August 21, 2011, Pentecost 10, Proper 16A
Preached at Holy Cross Monastery

Isaiah 51:1-6
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

As all the brethren know, I have just returned from two weeks away. I left, as I always do, with a small library of books I intended to read: David Brakke’s Athanasius and Asceticism; another book on asceticism, Margaret Miles’ Fullness of Life, which I should have read when it came out in 1981; two recent compilations of essays on the Venerable Bede; and Harold Bloom’s latest work of literary criticism, The Anatomy of Influence. I always do this: I pack the books I ought to read. I know I will return a much better person if I read them all, and I never do. I crack them, read a chapter or two, and then, somehow, mysteriously, move onto something else. This time I read two books which were actually a lot more fun: Jonathan Yardley’s wonderful short essays on neglected classics called Second Reading, and John Julius Norwich’s just-published narrative romp, Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy. If you want the serious history of the popes, of course, you have to go to the Germans, someone like Bernard Schimmelpfennig, who thinks it is terribly important that the reader understand that the likelihood that Peter ever even got to Rome at all is practically zero. He dissects the papacy like a coroner dissects corpses, looking for evidences of foul play.

Norwich is not of the Schimmelpfennig school. He nods his head to the grim truth that much has been lost to us in the mists of time. But he loves to evoke the living reality, so he tells the stories, and there are a lot of good and juicy stories to tell. The papacy has been around in one form or another going on two thousand years, and its story is a fascinating narrative with a cast of hundreds in the starring roles and thousands surrounding them. The Vatican officially lists Benedict XVI as number 265, and that doesn’t count the numerous popes of disputed title. There are lots of saints and quite a lot of remarkable and admirable men on that list. But there are also more than a few scoundrels, and some stories that will curl the hair of the most ardent proponent of the See of Rome. My personal favorite among the flagrantly ambiguous reigned from 1492 to 1503. Alexander VI, the first Borgia pope, was a great administrator and diplomat, a patron of the arts and of learning, and devoted to his family. He was a man of enormous charm which he used to great and positive effect at some quite dangerous and difficult moments. But as greatly charming persons sometimes are, he was also possessed of dubious personal holiness and habits of life. Among the four publicly acknowledged children by his mistress Vanozza dei Cattanei, all of whom he provided for in quite a grand way at the expense of the Church, was the irrepressible Lucrezia. I recommend Norwich to you to fill in the details.

“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Whatever construction later ecclesiastical theory put on this statement, and it is the key scriptural basis for the primacy of the successors of Peter, it is clear that the early church thought that the Lord’s words to Peter were central to its self-understanding. Something essential about the leadership of the Church is indicated by the exchange between Jesus and Peter. Something worth looking at.

Jesus is asking his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter, without any hesitation, answers, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." An amazingly rich and complicated exchange, using in such a short space three of the most loaded titles in all of scripture, about which commentary has swirled and proliferated likely since the moment this conversation was uttered. Indeed, the first commentary on it comes from Jesus himself: The one who has identified Jesus as Messiah and Son of the living God is the rock on which the Church will be built. That is how important Peter’s statement is.

I find it interesting that Jesus uses the word rock here, and also that the early church remembered it and made it central. Remember the parable of the two houses, one built on sand and the other on rock? The one built on sand is swept away. The one built on rock outlasts the storm. Jesus wants his movement to continue long after he is gone. But he seems to be worried that it won’t last, that it will be built on a false foundation. The church requires rock for its foundation. It may be, as later was taught, that the rock is the character of Peter, and it may be that his official successors will inherit his strength of character and immovability. The colorful story of Peter’s successors shows that some were rocks and some, well, not so much. Yet mysteriously, the church endures.

But I wonder if Jesus’ statement is not about something more direct in his exchange with Peter. The rock to which Jesus refers can be interpreted as Peter’s confession, that Jesus is Messiah and Son of the living God. This is what calls forth the Lord’s declaration. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that if a leader wants to follow in Peter’s steps, it is Peter’s confession that provides the strength and solidity, the genuineness, the integrity on which the church can continue to be built. What matters in a leader of the Church may include being a good administrator or a good diplomat, or a person devoted to his or her family (and what family doesn’t have its ups and downs!). But what makes Christian leadership genuine is that the leader points to Jesus of Nazareth and declares to all who may care to hear that it is this one – not some other – who is the one anointed to bring in the kingdom of God, that is to say, this is the one who is the answer to how we should order our lives, individually and collectively; that it is this one – not some other – who bears the divine nature in human form, that is to say, this is the one who shows us what it ultimately real.

The rock solid foundation of the Church is its understanding of who Jesus really is. Leaders who truly follow Peter, who are genuine rocks on whom the church is built in every age, indeed in our own age, are those who say with unequivocal certainty that Jesus is the one who brings in the kingdom and shows the true nature of God to us.

In eight days, on August 29, the list of official nominees for the election of the 16th Episcopal Bishop of New York is to be announced, and exactly two months later the Convention will vote, and, one hopes, elect. There are many qualities which one can desire in a bishop of a diocese as large and as complex as New York. We have had good administrators, diplomatic personalities, and men devoted to their families, though not all of them quite as colorful perhaps as Alexander VI. Whoever is elected will need many gifts, but more gifts will be needed than any one person can possess. Inevitably he or she will lack some important ones, and in ten years or so it will be clear what they are.

But there is one gift this new Bishop, in fact every bishop, in fact every Christian leader, in fact, every serious Christian, must absolutely possess. When asked the question, Who do you say that I am? by the Lord, or when asked by others, Who is Jesus?, that person should be one who, with Peter, can say with unequivocal certainty who Jesus is: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And mean it. And understand it. And interpret it to others. And put it into effective practice in this time and in this place. And build the church on it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Murder Mysteries and Apocalypse

Preached today at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Newburgh NY.

Genesis 28:10-19a
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

I love murder mysteries. Thanks to the public libraries of Ulster County, I’m reading three authors at the moment: The New Zealand/English Ngaio Marsh, who began publishing in the 30's; an English-speaker from Quebec, Louise Penny; and the Scottish writer Ian Rankin. Each writes in a definite genre: Marsh writes classic closed-room stories, set in picturesque British locations. Penny writes what are called “cozies” in the mystery trade – set in a fictitious rural Quebec village; and Rankin writes what are called police procedures, in Edinburgh.

They are all doing the same thing – revealing the identity of the murderer – but each does it differently. Marsh lays out the clues and gives the reader the same challenge, and the same chance, as the detective. Penny’s story evolves as time and the investigation elapses. Rankin’s stories lurch from event to event, and there is always violence before the culprit is unmasked and trapped.

Each mystery writer creates a small universe, like places in the world we live in but also not like them. There is a central character in each who is the agent for justice, and in whose life we become interested, especially if we read the novels in each series sequentially. And each of these little universes exists to embody a story, a narrative, whose ultimate end is to uncover the truth, to reveal reality, so that justice may be done and right may be established in the place of evil.

In other words, murder mysteries are little apocalypses. Just like our scripture lessons today. Like Marsh, Penny and Rankin, these passages from Genesis, Romans and Matthew are each apocalypses, moments of revealing truth, moments of setting things right at the end of the story. Because, in fact, the word apocalypse in Greek means un-covering, and when the truth is uncovered by God, things which were wrong are made right.

The story of Jacob’s dream is one of the most famous in all of scripture. In Genesis the ladder resting on the rock Jacob is using as a pillow is the opening from this world into the next, the uncovering of the entrance to the realm of God, in which the ceaseless movement of angels up and down, up and down, reveals the continual intervention of God’s energy and activity into Jacob’s world and ours. The dream of the ladder assures Jacob that his life will be the point where the divine meets the human in the world, and that his life will lead to the fulfilling of God’s purpose through the prosperity of his descendants. Jesus uses Jacob’s ladder to describe his own identity when he calls Nathanael from the fig tree in the first chapter of John: "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." (John 1:51) The cover is lifted, the curtain parts, and the truth is glimpsed for a moment: God’s energy, God’s angels, are always intervening. Our challenge is to find Jacob, to find the Son of Man, so that we may see heaven opened. The apocalyptic message is that there is a point of entry to the realm of God, and it is accessible to us, and if we live into its promise, God’s purpose will be fulfilled.

The eighth chapter of St. Paul is one of the greatest theological meditations on the purpose of God ever written, in any language, in any religion, in any age. His purpose is to uncover for us our real identity as children of God, to reveal God’s ultimate purpose for us individually as sons and daughters of God, but even more, to lift the cover, to part the curtain, and to see as it really is the true movement of what God has made: Creation for Paul is a living being, yearning for its fulfillment. He solves the mystery of existence, of the universe, and our place in it, when he says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (Romans 8:18-19) We are not what we thought we were. We are so much more, so very much more, to God than we could ever imagine on our own. The apocalyptic message is that there is a purpose to our life, a purpose to the universe, and it is found in the unity with God which God is preparing for each of us and for all of us, and not just us as human entities, but for the whole created order, eagerly longing for us.

After the excitement of Jacob’s ladder dream and Paul’s lyrical description of the stately progress of God’s purpose bringing all things into harmony, the parable of the wheat and the weeds seems harsh, even violent. If the story of Jacob’s dream is in form a little like Ngaio Marsh, a narrative told plainly and concentrating on the facts; and if Paul’s hymn to the unity of God’s creative purpose from Romans can be compared to Louise Penny’s narratives, which unfold from within the continuities of a much smaller created world; then perhaps the parable of the wheat and tares can be likened to the nasty underworld of Edinburgh, the non-touristy Edinburgh, in Ian Rankin’s work. In his stories evil is so palpable, and the necessity to engage that evil is so clear, that we know that in the end people will be hurt. We pray that it is the people who deserve to be hurt, and even though the just suffer injuries, even casualties along the way, the evil do always find their punishment.

The field in Matthew is not picturesque. It is a place of struggle, of hard work, of opposition to the good, where enemies sneak in at night to ruin the crop by sowing weeds. As in the detective story, a premature reaction by the owner of the field or his workers does not help, but can actually destroy the crop altogether. But there will be retribution. There will be a violent reaction. Evil will not win. What must happen first is for the difference between the wheat and the weeds to become evident as the plants grow. In God’s good time all will become clear. And in God’s good time, God will see that it all comes to a proper end, an end described so satisfyingly for those who want to see the evil suffer for what they have done. The catharsis seems as necessary to end this parable as a cathartic ending is for Rankin’s murders.

No doubt the parable of the wheat and the weeds reflects the mixture of good and evil in the Israel of the time of Jesus. It was probably remembered because soon enough the Church discovered that it too harbored different seeds, different plants. The temptation was to identify the evil and cast it out. That temptation is still with us in the Church. But Jesus’ advice then is still true today: God will do his own work. Remember who we are and what we are to do. It is not ours to judge each other. It is ours to grow, to be wheat instead of weeds. The apocalyptic message is that we are the plants which should grow into good wheat, yielding good for God. It is not our job to judge each other, and while there will be serious consequences for the weeds – for those who make themselves subject to evil – God will take care of it.

I don’t want to push the analogy of my three murder mystery writers to Genesis, Romans and Matthew too far. But there is something to it. I think we love murder mysteries because they create universes into which we can imaginatively place ourselves and participate in the double apocalyptic process of the discovery of the truth and setting things right. Today’s scripture lessons offer us the same process, but so much more profoundly. And with this difference: They are true. There really is a person upon whom the energies, the angels, of God ascend and descend. There really is an unfolding process going on which is leading inexorably to the exaltation of ourselves and all creation in God’s own being. There really is a difference between good and evil, and there really will be a time when the good wins.

May we find in our blessed Lord Jesus Christ the angelic ladder opening heaven to us on earth. May we begin to live in the awareness of the great purposes of God for each of us and for all that is. May we grow and thrive, do good in our day, and not be deflected by what is not good, in the confidence that God’s goodness will triumph over all.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Parable of the Soils

I preached again at St. Ignatius of Antioch, New York City, today. A nice crowd, and lovely weather.

Proper 10A, July 10, 2011
Matthew 13:1- 9,18-23

The parable of the Sower is perhaps the one parable in the Gospels that seems to require no explanation, because Jesus himself gives us the explanation. It seems like a straightforward call for those who hear the word of God to give fruitful increase. And so it is.

But I want to play a little game with you. As you were listening to the Gospel this morning, or as you read it in the bulletin before the liturgy began, where did you find yourself in the parable? I’ll be willing to bet that some of us, perhaps most of us, identified with the seed being sown, and asked the question, Which of these situations is about my life? How fruitful am I? And, of course, that is exactly the question Jesus wants us to ask about ourselves. The point of the parable is to get us to ask, how can I be more fruitful for the Lord? The problem would seem to be the soil I’m planted in. I could accomplish so much more except for all problems I face. Or I am living in a shallow cultural environment. Or it’s for me hard to put down roots just now. Or there are so many distractions in my life. I’m sure that if I could sort these issues in the background of my life, the real fruitfulness which is surely the potential of my life will come to the fore, bloom, bear fruit, and the increase will be great. If only the circumstances of my life were better, I would be fine. The problem is essentially external to myself. In the prophetic words of Skip Wilson, The devil made me do it.

But let’s look more carefully at the text, and at Jesus’ explanation. In each case, the seed that is sown is the same. It is the soil that the seed is planted in that is different. So perhaps we are not the seed, but the soil. Perhaps this should be called the Parable of the Soils. If this is the case, then perhaps our search for blame for why we re not as fruitful as God wants us to be – assuming that none of us here is quite up to the hundredfold benchmark Jesus sets – perhaps the reason we’re not quite among the hundredfold is that our soil isn’t quite up to hundredfold standards. In other words, if we are the soils in this parable, then we will find within our own lives the reasons why the seed is not yielding as it should. Our own minds and hearts and souls are the soils where the seed of the Word of God is sown. And since Jesus delineates those reasons himself, let’s look at them.

Jesus gives three reasons why the soils are not productive: in the first, the seed is sown along a trodden path, so hard that it cannot germinate, the evil one snatches the seed away, and it never has a chance to grow; in the second, there are so many rocks that there isn’t enough soil for proper roots to grow; and in the third, worldly cares and the desire for wealth choke out an initially good growth.

We are not a culture that is comfortable, on the whole, with the idea of an evil one prowling around, snatching what he can. But I’m not entirely convinced that our skepticism is completely justified. I have seen young people and friends turn almost overnight from loving, helpful, curious and pointed to the future to being destructively self-absorbed, wanting thrills that can only be had from drugs or actions that bring harm. I have watched people become so obsessed or angry that their relationships dissolve and their work or their studies go down the tubes, or more subtly, make living and working with them so difficult that their lives and the lives of those around them wither. They grow hard, like a path that is continually pounded. How can the Word of God penetrate such a shell? It is snatched away before it is even heard. It’s enough to make you wonder, Just what is the power that causes such grief? The path needs to be turned back into soil. It needs to be plowed up, for something to break through and change it.

There are people who have a lot of rocks in their lives. It isn’t their fault, exactly, but they do. The genetic inheritance we’re born with may have problems. The family we’re born into may have problems. The community we are reared in may have problems. The world has problems. Lord knows how many troubles each of us has. And they just seem to grow as our life unfolds. I like pictures of beautiful New England – or upstate New York – fields. How do you think they got to be so beautiful? They started out rocky. How can you make a field like that good for growing something in? You can leave the rocks there and be disappointed in the yield. Or you can remove them patiently, one by one, until the plow can make it through without being deflected or broken. And every spring, more rocks come to the surface. You don’t know why. They just do. So the farmer’s job at that season of the year is to bend over patiently yet again and remove them. Is there anything more beautiful than a carefully cultivated field, with the rocks moved to the side to build a boundary wall, or used to build the farmer’s fieldstone house? But the truth is, if you have a rocky field, you have to work patiently and continually to make space for the crops to grow. And if you do, they will. And fields like that are often heart-stoppingly beautiful. As are people who patiently work at their stony lives, never giving up, season after season moving the rocky parts out of the way, making use of them as best they can, not letting them limit their fruitfulness. But those who do not patiently work at it do not have much capacity to let the Word grow in them.

And the third sort? Their soil is deep and rich and unobstructed. They are the golden boys and girls, born beautiful, their families focused as they should be, their communities supportive. In the world of high school, they are the captain of the football team, the head cheerleader, the homecoming king and queen. They are the ones who got a new car when they turned 16. They don’t know what they have. And not knowing, the cares of life overwhelm them, in part because they don’t have the practice of clearing their life field of rocks, in part because they have been sheltered from the real evils of life by the wise and responsible people in their lives. And so, when care comes, and it always does come, they aren’t ready to meet it. Having always had more than they need, they find it hard to limit their desire, and so they follow it, the false god of always wanting more. Their golden promise turns into something else. The Word is taken up with joy, as are so many new things, but nothing comes of it.

How can we become good soil? The answers are pretty clear: Face the evil that comes to us with courage, break through the hard surface it creates and give the good a chance. Address the problems of life with realism and determination and the knowledge that it is a lifelong struggle, but worth it, so worth it! Come to understand that our blessings are not ours by nature or by right, but are a foundation given to us to build what is better, for ourselves and for others.

There is one more image I would like to lift out of our parable today. The sower is indiscriminate. The seed is sown on soil of every type. The sower is not discouraged by thorns and thistles, by rocks and stones, not even by beaten paths. The sower does not consult the Good Soils Manual and then decide where his best likely profit lies and exclude the rest. He spreads the seed without regard to the probability of its growth. He is not prudent. He is prodigal. Like the father in that other parable about prudence and prodigality, he does not count the cost.

The Word of God is sown everywhere, all the time, with reckless abandon. It does not really matter to God that on the face of it we are unlikely to be fruitful, whether we are beset by problems so great they can prove the existence of evil to a doubting world, or whether our lives require continual work to clear the ground for the good, or whether we have had every blessing and messed up mightily. God plants the Word in our hearts over and over and over again, in the hope that much good will grow. So let us open the stony-paths of our hearts. Let us get on with the lifelong work of dealing with our problems. Let us wake up to the reality of our blessings and clear our lives of distraction and greed. Let our lives be good soil for the Word of God.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

On Travailing

Here's the text of the sermon I preached at St. Ignatius of Antioch, New York City, today.

Pentecost 3, Proper 9A
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

One of my earliest church memories is of the reredos of St. James Church in Pullman, Washington. My father was vicar there in the 1950s. It was wood, vaguely gothic, painted in red, blue and gold, and running across the top were the words “Come unto me all ye that travail”. In 1957 the reredos was moved from the older church and set up in the new contemporary building. That was perhaps my first introduction to the wonderful Anglican way of holding on to an Older Way. My father, of course, explained that travail meant work. Clearly, though, travail wasn’t just any kind of work. I always wondered what sort of work would qualify as travail, so that the Lord might refresh me. I sometimes still do.

That wonderful, encouraging passage comes at the end of a string of sayings that seem deceptively simple . The cute chorus of village urchins taunting passersby. The saying about John the Baptist. Then, after some town cursings, mercifully omitted from our Gospel reading today, another evocation of children, this time as the bearers of revelation, then an involved christological statement, and finally the word of comfort for the weary worker. The sequence seems random, and a common theme hard at first to discern.

And so it would be taken out of context. But, our passage today is actually an answer to the question John the Baptist asks from prison at the beginning of the chapter: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" In other words, Who is Jesus?

Jesus begins the answer by pointing to the works his ministry are accomplishing: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” This is the prophetic description of the inbreaking messianic kingdom, and by indirection Jesus is saying, I am the Messiah. John, says Jesus, is the prophet Elijah returned to Israel, in all his desert asperity. And this is the lead in to the taunting urchin chorus: "But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'” The question, Who is Jesus entails a second question: Who are we? Are we the people who so disappointed the children of the street? If Jesus is the Messiah, are we prepared to welcome him, or will we be put off by our expectations?

If the answer to the question, Who is Jesus, is answered first by applying the prophetic description of the Messiah, the second part of the answer, our Gospel today, contains a more developed answer. John came fasting, and they said he had a demon. Jesus comes feasting, and they say, he keeps company with the wrong people. “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds." This short saying, dropped into the middle of this discourse as a sort of aphorism, is in fact the key to the question, Who is he?

What are the deeds of wisdom here? The deeds referenced in this section may refer to the ministry styles of John and Jesus, but more likely they refer to the salvation brought to the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead and the poor. In other words, the works of Jesus are the works of wisdom, the works by which she is justified in the face of those who doubt or deny her. In other words, Jesus is wisdom. Jesus is the wisdom of God.

And what is that wisdom? And to whom is it given? It is to children to whom God’s secrets are revealed, even to street urchins, who in their playful rudeness discern the truth. It is to the simple, the little ones, the least, that God opens his infinite heart and discloses his mysterious purposes. The wisdom of God is not bound by human wisdom. The wisdom of God is in fact that Word come into the world, so long expected by the students and scribes and sages of Israel, so movingly described in the wisdom tradition of Scripture. And it is precisely to those who are undervalued by the power of the world that the secret of God’s real power is disclosed: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father.” And it is precisely to these little ones that God reveals his true being: ”and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” God’s Word and Wisdom are disclosed in Jesus of Nazareth. But this disclosure requires humility if it is to be grasped and understood. One must become as a little child to enter the Kingdom of God. And even more radically, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

If Jesus is disclosed as the wisdom of God, then who are we? Are we seekers after God, disciples of John the Baptist, come here today to find the one we have been looking for? Or are we perhaps the ones who can’t see what is before our eyes, like those who rejected both John and Jesus because they did not fit our preconceptions, our expectations or our pretensions, because perhaps the dance we are invited to join is with street urchins instead of the ballet? Or are we perhaps the overworked, the underpaid, the not appreciated, the ignored, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead and the poor of our own time and place?

The trajectory of today’s gospel suggests that those to whom the Word of Wisdom is addressed are the little ones of the world, the ones who don’t matter, the children of the street, those whose lives are scarred by poverty and oppressed by disability, hopelessness, despair and death. This discourse is exaggerated, perhaps in the way of Middle Eastern rhetoric through the ages. But what do we have in common with them? What part of our lives shares their life? If those disastrous qualities disqualify us from the great race of the world, they are precisely the qualities which gain us entrance into the Kingdom. For it is only when we live in the truth of our limitations, and not just in our glories, that we can stand before God, when we can mourn when it is time to mourn, and dance when it is time to dance, and dance in the street with the children if that is where God gives it to us to dance, it is only when we live in our whole truth that we can recognize the Son of God when He comes among us and know that He, even He who keeps company with gluttons, drunkards, tax collectors and sinners, and perhaps with us, is the one who reveals the truth of God to us.

For most of us, the reality of our life is work. Work to make a living. Work to make a family. Work to make a home. Work to make a community, a city, a nation, a world worth living in. Work to share what we can with others. Work to build a church and work to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those the Holy Spirit brings to us. Work to create what is noble, beautiful and inspiring. Work. Work. It seems sometimes that our work never stops, that every waking moment is given over. I think that is what travail must be. Not just eight hours given for a paycheck, but a lifetime of obligations, faithfully and caringly attended to, even when we would rather not. No wonder our Lord calls it a yoke.

But his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. So join the urchins in their dance. “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pentecost 2: The Sacrifice of Isaac and a Cup of Cold Water

Here's the sermon from Sunday, preached at The Church of the Incarnation in NYC.

Next Sunday, July 3, and the following Sunday, July 10, I will be presiding and preaching at The Church of St. Ignatius of Antioch in New York City. 10:00 am for both.

Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

What an amazing contrast there seems to be this morning between the lesson from Genesis and the Gospel, so disturbing to so many. So disturbing, in fact, that a copy of “A Child’s Bible” I picked up in the sacristy before the service here doesn’t include it at all!. Between the sacrifice of Isaac and the concluding words of our Lord to us today: “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple--truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward." -- what a contrast!

God in the first narrative seems harsh, demanding, primitive. Abraham and Sarah have gone almost a whole lifetime, nigh onto a century, without a legitimate heir. The Lord visits and promises a son, and miracle of miracles, Isaac is born. What joy there must have been! Watching the boy grow up and begin to take his place in the family must have given Abraham and Sarah hope and confidence that the Lord’s promise to them – a multitude of nations from their offspring, as numerous as the sands on the seashore – would come true. And then God, who has given, takes away. Abraham trusted God to give him a son, and Abraham trusts when God asks for that son to be given back to him. So off they go, three days journey, and who can imagine what must have been going on in the minds of that father and that son? The only clue we have is when Isaac asks, Where is the lamb for the sacrifice? And Abraham replies, God will provide. Simple words, loaded with apprehension, loaded with emotion. Loaded, no doubt, with fear.

But they push on, and when Abraham binds Isaac and lays him on the wood for the fire, wood Isaac himself has carried all the way, for three days, Isaac seems to understand. There is not a peep from him. He is the perfect lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep before its shearers is dumb, as the old translation put it. For Christians he prefigures Christ, who will be the perfect offering, and not for us only, but for the whole world. And at the last moment, the ram in the thicket. Isaac is saved. Abraham has proven his faith. God’s trust in him as the father of God’s new people is justified.

There is, of course, more going on here than a simple family narrative. Abraham is the founder of the faith. He is the exemplar for all who want to follow in faith for all ages to come. And Isaac is more, so much more, than the beloved son who arrived late in life. Isaac is the promised hope of the future. And one of the purposes of this strange story is to make it clear to Abraham, to Isaac, to Israel, and to us, that this promised future does not belong to Abraham alone. It is not Abraham’s doing and it is not Abraham’s possession. The future belongs to God, absolutely and unconditionally. Those who welcome God, who trust God, and who follow God will belong to that future, will be unimaginably blessed. But it is not their – our – doing. It is not their – our – possession. It is ours because God gives it to us, and he gives it to us because we, like Abraham, are willing not only to begin the journey, to share the joy of things long desired or entirely unexpected, but also to walk the hard path when it comes to us. That is what made Abraham the father of all in faith. And no less is asked of us.

And so, the cup of water for the little ones, given to them, presumably, by bigger, greater ones. What a charming image. Thirsty little children, perhaps, or perhaps the poor, the disadvantaged, those who never will “make it”, whose lives are the supporting cast for the great ones. The “minim” as the Hebrew has it. God never forgets them. They are those who are in his heart of hearts. “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Who cannot spare a cup of water, who can fail to give them what they need? A cruel heart indeed who would deny such need.

But this saying does not stand alone. It is the conclusion of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as he sends them out for the first time, the apostolic discourse in Matthew, Chapter 10. That discourse begins with these instructions:

Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

Jesus is telling his disciples how they are to announce the kingdom, how they are to carry on his work, how they are to begin the long journey of faith that will create the family of God’s kingdom. He continues through a long and familiar list of instructions: Take no gold or silver, no extra baggage, for the laborer deserves his pay. Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, because you will be like lambs among wolves. You are going to be handed over to authorities, but don’t worry. Don’t worry at all. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny, and yet you are worth so much more than sparrows. Every hair of your head has been counted. The smallest thing in your life is precious to God. But don’t be fooled. There will be conflict, there will be suffering, even from those closest to you. And then this:

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Does this strike a familiar chord to us today? It should. It is a direct echo of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. These lines come immediately before today’s Gospel. Our Gospel text today is not just a suggestion to adults to be kindly mindful of children, or to those better off to regard the needs of the less fortunate. These lines come as the climax to the Lord’s extended teaching on how the discipled life of faith is to be lived. They are the point of the whole discourse. To announce the kingdom, to find the grace of God to take us on the arduous, difficult, dangerous journey of faith, all leads to one simple act: the prophetic, apostolic ministry points in the end to this: That the little ones receive their cup of water. And not just from the licensed disciples: Whoever. Whoever gives even a cup of cold water. Look around. How many are already doing the work of faith? They are as numerous as the sands on the seashore.

The story of Abraham and Isaac and our Lord’s apostolic discourse are really calling to the same thing. God makes the promise of the future, the promise of the kingdom. God invites us to the kingdom as to a journey, and gives us the same invitation as he did to Abraham. And God invites us to set out in the faith of his kingdom, as he invited his disciples.

Like Abraham we are called to produce the promise of the future, as Abraham and Sarah produced Isaac, to produce the holy offspring of the life of faith. But it is not ours. It belongs to God. There will be joy, but there will also be trouble, three day walks to mountains without wood for the fire we need, and radical, existential uncertainty about what we will do when we get there. The little one God has promised is the center of it all, so young, so fragile, such a thin thread to the future. He could so easily be lost. The point is not to know. The point is to trust.

Like the disciples we are sent out to live our lives in faith as a proclamation, and we need to know that there will be joy but there will also be trouble. As with Abraham, the future that faith promises is a gift from God, not our possession, even though it is through our lives that the promise comes to life. And just as with Abraham, it is the little ones who bear the future. The little ones – the children or the poor, who knows? Probably both – are the fragile, thin thread to the future.

So have faith. When the road seems hard, harder than perhaps we think we can bear, be Abraham. God will provide. When we find the little ones, or rather, when they find us, be kind. Give them the cold water they need. Fear not. Be of good cheer. For of such is the kingdom of heaven.